Fri 04 June, 2004 10:01 PM
By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations' top human rights official says abuses by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison could amount to war crimes.
Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Bertrand Ramcharan said on Friday U.S.-led occupation forces had committed "serious violations" of international humanitarian law in Iraq and had ill-treated ordinary Iraqis.
In a report for the world body's Human Rights Commission, Ramcharan, a British-trained barrister from Guyana and long-time U.N. official, also said coalition troops were able to act with impunity and urged the appointment of an independent figure to monitor their behaviour.
In a clear reference to the Abu Ghraib incidents, since when several U.S. male and female soldiers working there have been detained, Ramcharan said "wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment" of detainees was a grave breach of international law.
Such acts "might be designated as war crimes by a competent tribunal", he added.
The only U.S. soldier to face court martial so far for his role in the Abu Ghraib abuses was sent to jail for one year.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli declined to comment on whether U.S. soldiers may have committed war crimes at Abu Ghraib and said the United States believed its soldiers should be judged within the U.S. military justice system.
Ereli said reports that U.S. forces may have mistreated ordinary Iraqis were troubling and Washington would ask for more details.
The United States has refused to sign a 1998 treaty creating the world's first permanent global war crimes tribunal.
The United States was one of 135 nations to sign the treaty under former President Bill Clinton. But President George W. Bush's administration rescinded the signature, fearing the court could bring politically motivated or frivolous cases against U.S. troops serving on foreign soil.
The 45-page report cited one former Abu Ghraib detainee, Saddam Abood Al-Rawi, 29, as telling U.N. investigators he was subjected to 18 days of torture at the U.S.-run prison.
This included the pulling of teeth, kicking and beating and threats of rape, and warnings he would be killed if he told a visiting international Red Cross team about his treatment.
The report quoted Rawi as saying that he suffered physical torture when he was held at an Iraqi prison under ousted president Saddam Hussein. But under U.S.-led occupation forces, he was additionally subjected to "humiliation and mental cruelty".
CRITICISED AS "LIGHT"
"The serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law that have taken place (since U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq in March last year and ousted then President Saddam Hussein) must not be allowed to recur," the report said.
But the report, which asserted that "everyone accepts" that the U.S. and its allies intended their troops in Iraq to behave well, drew criticism from Reed Brody, special counsel to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch organisation.
"It seems very light, and to bend over backwards to accept the good faith of the U.S.," he told Reuters by telephone. "I don't think it is the place of the U.N. human rights office to evaluate the intentions of a state or group of states."
Ramcharan's spokesman, Jose Luis Diaz, denied there had been any outside effort to have the report watered down. "There was no pressure on this office," he told Reuters.
Ramcharan suggested that among the more serious violations was the jailing of large numbers of Iraqis without anyone's knowledge and without any reasons being given.
His report, submitted to U.S. and British officials for comment on Wednesday, cited Iraqis interviewed in Amman as speaking of "arbitrary arrests and detention as an ongoing phenomenon" since the invasion.
The report said Saddam's removal was a major contribution to human rights in Iraq. His government "was a brutal, murderous, torturing gang that preyed on its own people".
"Everyone accepts the good intentions of the coalition governments as regards the behaviour of their forces in Iraq," Ramcharan said. Iraq could now be "on the road to democracy, the rule of law, and governance that is respectful of human rights".